Over the last 6 months I’ve had a number of occasions where I describe the Google search results I’m seeing to someone on the phone, or across the table, and they say “that’s not what I’m seeing.” I’d begun to suspect this was partly because Google was giving preference to websites/search results I’d previously clicked on. Today I finally decided to look into it … and learned that 2 months ago Google made a major, official move to personalized search — and past clicking behavior is a big factor.

Personalized search is not new, but previously it was only offered to sign-in users who had “Web History” enabled. In early December, Google’s blog announced that “Today we’re helping people get better search results by extending Personalized Search to signed-out users worldwide, and in more than forty languages.” The post’s author explained personalized search as follows:

Since I always search for [recipes] and often click on results from epicurious.com, Google might rank epicurious.com higher on the results page the next time I look for recipes. Other times, when I’m looking for news about Cornell University’s sports teams, I search for [big red]. Because I frequently click on www.cornellbigred.com, Google might show me this result first, instead of the Big Red soda company or others.

Three days later, Danny Sullivan wrote on Search Engine Land that Google had “made the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines, and the world largely yawned.”

This trend makes a lot of sense for users, but can lead to a false sense of SEO success if you’re a business. Let’s say you’re a DC area dentist and you search for “DC dentists.” Google’s default results — which most people see — list your website on the 10th page. But because you’ve clicked on your site a number of times in past searches, your personalized Google results show your site on the 1st page, in the #3 spot. You think you’re in great shape — and you give your SEO consultant a raise — when in reality you’re as invisible as you were a year ago.

So if you don’t want to purchase software like WebPosition, how do you see what most other people are seeing on Google? You can opt out of personalized search and you can delete your search history (which Google keeps for 180 days) at any time. But you probably don’t want to do that, because then you lose out on the benefits of personalized search for your personal browsing. What I’m going to do is use a different browser (one I never use otherwise) when I’m doing SEO research and try not to click on any links. I’ll let you know if I come up with a better solution.